Are You Ready for Robo-Umps?

When it comes to changing the rules of baseball, my foot is most often planted firmly in the “leave the game alone” camp. I was opposed to the no-pitch walk and the new slide rules (largely because they are confusing and unevenly enforced.) Pitch clocks, no. And I believe that Commissioner Rob Manfred’s latest suggestion that teams should be limited to one relief pitcher per inning late in the game is an egregious assault on manager strategy.

I love the traditions of the game, like heated debates over some of baseball history’s most controversial and consequential ump calls that will never be settled. But traditionalists are facing an enemy even more daunting than Manfred: technology. While commissioners come and go, technology is here to stay.

Fans now see blown calls on their devices as they occur. There is no guessing, no shrug of the shoulders… only outrage when the evidence shows that their team was robbed of a hit, a run, a no-hitter or sometimes, a game. They no longer just think certain umps are incompetent, they know it beyond a doubt.

A few years ago, MLB recognized that the media’s use of Hi-Def video and slow-mo cameras which glaringly exposed bad calls must be coupled with some kind of corrective action. Instant replay was the result.

We now face the same situation with the strike zone. Even though statistics show that the average ump has an accuracy rate of around 88 percent, there are still a significant number of high leverage calls contained within the 12 percent failure rate. I don’t think fans, especially young technocentric ones, will continue to tolerate this, especially if they are heavily invested in fantasy baseball.

And while baseball hasn’t had a big scandal in years, history tells us that it’s always a possibility. Proponents of an automated strike zone can also argue that it is the only sure way to prevent an ump with a vendetta, a bias or a monetary incentive from favoring a player or team.

Though we are already headed that way, it may take a bad call in a crucial postseason game to accelerate the march to automatic strike zones. We saw this in tennis, an 800-year-old sport steeped in tradition, which adopted the Hawk-Eye system to decide challenges after a succession of blown calls in a 2005 tournament enraged players and fans. Hawk-Eye Smart Replay® is actually used by MLB teams to review plays in their internal decisions of whether or not to challenge a play. Likewise, It may take a monumental World Series-style screw-up in balls/strikes to get baseball over the final hurdle of the technology hump. Apologies from umps for errors costing pitchers perfect games and teams playoff wins (see: Game 5, Nats fans) just aren’t going to cut it for much longer.

“Change back to optical [sensors], with redundant systems [for robo-ump],” said Harry Pavlidis, director of technology for Baseball Prospectus and the founder of Pitch Info. “Redefine the top and bottom of the strike zone so it’s not arbitrary in terms of time. And test out the notion of a fixed zone; it would hopefully be no big deal that suddenly there are many more 3-0 walks and 0-2 punchouts, but we’d have to see how the game is impacted [to get robo-ump right].”

My baseball heart emphatically rejects the idea of “robo-umps” and yet its precursor is already here. Whether we like it or not, I believe that in a few years — when the technology is deemed efficient and reliable — we will see some kind of tech/ump hybrid at home plate

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